Monday 1 September 2014

Independence for Scotland?

                                       Tuscan School, The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew
For we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come.
Hebrews 13:14

For we ha'e faith
in Scotland's hidden poo'ers
The present's theirs
but a' the past and future's oors.

Hugh MacDiarmid 

This is a spiritual blog not a political one, forbye which most of the people who read it will never come within a thousand miles of Scotland. So what for am I writing a post anent the Scottish Independence referendum of September 2014? Firstly, because I'm Scottish about which more later. Secondly, because it seems like a good test case for considering the relationship between spirituality and patriotism or nationalism. After all if, for example, Christians hold that the 'one thing necessary'(Luke 10:42) is to 'seek first the Kingdom of God' (Matthew 6:33) then you would think that they would look with a lofty disdain on merely earthly kingdoms.

In the New Testament we frequently find suggestions that in our personal hierarchy of values we should put mundane considerations such as income, family or country low down on our list of priorities. For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul (Matthew 16:26If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26) And within the historical context of the first century Holy Land the very actions of Jesus bear witness against the nationalism of many of his compatriots. Early in His mission we see Jesus therefore, when he knew that they would come to take him by force, and make him king, fled again into the mountain himself alone (John 6:15)

From the perspective of the Roman authorities the territory was full of Palestinian terrorist like Barabbas (Mark 15:7) who concealed themselves in the civilian population and used them as human shields while committing 'sedition and murder.' From the point of view of many Jews though groups like the Zealots were heroes who fought valiantly against a regional superpower. The fact that they had no chance of success did not matter much so long as they struck a blow on behalf of a people who had been beaten and dispossessed by a powerful foreign foe.There was an expectation that a figure anointed by God, Messiah or Christ means the anointed one, would be able to unify the Jews and turn the disparate groups of Jewish jihadis into a force capable of driving the occupying power into the sea. Many thought that Jesus would be such a figure. He, however, repudiated such nationalism. My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) He told the Roman governor Pilate.

The only witness in favour of nationalism in the New Testament comes from St Paul who writes For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh. (Romans 9:3) But even here he acknowledges that 'not all who are of Israel are Israel' meaning that membership of a nation or tribe or clan is secondary to the main business of life which is spiritual. Encountering and responding to the transcendent reality is what matters and anything in the material world which substitutes itself for the deity, such as the Nation, is is to be rejected. What we do in this world, such as loving our neighbours as ourselves, should flow from the divine encounter. Nothing can be put into a separate category where spiritual values do not apply.

Does this mean that Christians in Scotland should ignore the referendum and that they have nothing to contribute to the debate? No, but it means that their contribution needs to come from a distinct angle. There is nothing peculiarly Christian to be said about a common currency or how much oil is left in the North Sea (although there is a Christian angle to the removal of weapons of mass destruction from Scottish soil.) But Christianity does have something to say about community.

There are many things in this world which are both imaginary and real at the same time. Or, more precisely, they are real because they exist in people's imaginations. Money is one such thing. With a coloured piece of paper it is possible to buy haggis and chips but not a bottle of single malt whisky. With a slightly different coloured piece of paper one can buy not only a single malt but also several haggis suppers and a deep fried Mars bar while receiving numerous metal disks in exchange for the paper as well. The intrinsic worth of both bits of paper is identical but the value we ascribe to them is a collective act of the imagination. A country or nation is a similar imaginative creation. If nobody believes that a country exists then it does not exist. If large numbers of people believe that a country exists then that alone will have the power to bring it into being if it is not already established. Nature does not create nations. Geography does not create nations. God does not, in the usual sense of the term, create nations. Contrary to what you might expect economic necessity does not create nations either although it plays a part in forming and sustaining them. And most particularly science does not create nations.
A country is an imagined community. It is not real in the sense that no single individual imagines the country to be just precisely, just exactly the way that country actually is. People attribute to the nation a collective sensibility, a shared set of values which it does not possess. They understand it to have a shared history which it has never lived, all historical accounts are highly selective and in any event the past is even more of an act of the imagination than the national community is. Very often a patriot thinks of her country as being mostly composed of people very like herself but no country is very like any one person. Commitment to nation or love of country is an act of faith in an imagined reality. 'Just like Christianity!' the atheists among you will say. However that might be Christianity and Nationalism have this in common they proceed from a notion of Incarnation. Ideas which taken in isolation are mere abstractions take on life when they are clad with flesh. Moreover, from the beginning Christianity was Church, a community. Without Church there is no Christianity. Without community there is no Nation. The Church community is in part a visible, structured thing with rituals and sacraments, it subsists in the Catholic Church, and in part an invisible, spiritual thing, a hermit on a mountain is as much part of the community as a woman at a Papal Mass attended by millions. So too the Nation, whether it has a State of its own or not, exists in both visible and invisible forms. A People without shared rituals and agreed common signs is no People at all.

What the members of a nation agree among themselves to imagine about themselves becomes an incarnated reality. Christians who are called to be the leaven that leavens the whole must play their part in contributing ideas and values to this shared act of imagination. The loyalty which they have may be first and foremost to the person of Jesus Christ but He is not an abstraction. He is a person and He translates His ideas and values into action in the world. In the national conversation Christians must seek to ensure that the collective imagination becomes tinged with the personality of Christ so that the nation as a whole through its agencies, such as the health service or the foreign office, and each member of that collectivity acts more or less consciously under the influence and inspiration of these values. This should not be confused with evangelism or a mingling of Church and State. It is no business of the State or Nation to demand of its members allegiance to a religious confession as a prior condition of membership of that country. Explicitly recruiting to the Church is a task for the Church alone. But it is the business of Christians to diffuse their values in society and it is not the business of State or Nation to prevent them and to insist that religion is a purely private affair.

Leaving that to one side. Do Christians have a duty to love their country even if they are excluded from the national conversation or if their views are not heeded? The philosopher Simone Weil said that "In the soul of a Christian, the presence of the pagan virtue of patriotism acts as a dissolvent"  What she had in mind was specifically the patriotism of Rome (and also of Nazi Germany which was then occupying her native France) It is a pagan virtue if it is directed towards the notion of the State as an agent of power, as an idol to be worshipped. To love your country in the sense of saying 'we are number one' is morally abhorrent in a Christian. It is to identify might with right and your notion of God with the policies of your country. There is no sense in which Christians can justify sin in the name of patriotism. And to the extent that a country is mired in sin a Christian who wilfully either distorts theology to justify evil or pretends that her countries policies are something other than they really are has departed from Christianity and become an idolator. There is a positive duty of resistance laid upon Christians which always and everywhere trumps patriotism. Where a nation embarks upon a path which Christianity condemns Christians are bound to refuse cooperation at the very least.

Professor Weil, however, joined the Free French resistance out of the love which she bore for France. Patriotism can have many faces. She wrote One can love France, for the glory which would seem to insure for her a prolonged existence in space and time; or one can love her as something which being earthly, can be destroyed, and is all the more precious on that account. These are two distinct ways of loving" Recognising that a nation is a product of imagination, that at some point it comes into existence and at some point it will cease to be. Recognising too that it is no more and often less than the best of the best people who make it up Christians have a duty to strengthen the good, console the weak and defend the right. Their place in the nation is not as apologist nor as traitor but as bulwark. The great gift a nation can offer is stability. Through its institutions and shared values it can, for a time, allow for the maintenance of what most of its members agree to be good. Families can be safe, children can be taught, one generation can share its imagination with another. Christianity places the family at the centre of its project. Country and Church have a shared stake in stability which does not exclude, for example, one country seceding from another as may happen in Scotland. The argument here being that the shared values which Scots imagine that they have will be lost if the Union with an England possessed of antagonistic values persists.  

                                                        William Hepburn 1940-2011

Which brings me to my Scottishness. Since I live in partibus infidelium, also known as Exeter, and may, after all never return to my native land it is possible that the only practical impact upon me personally of a 'Yes' vote would be my having to acquire a different passport. Yet, if a nation is an incarnated set of ideas (or dreams) a person from that nation is a bearer of those ideas. Accept them or reject them ones life is never entirely free from an interior dialogue with them. It is usually through the family that those values are first transmitted. My late father William Hepburn, God rest his soul, was a Scottish Nationalist for around 50 years of his life. Had he lived few things in that life would have given him more happiness than to answer the question "do you want an independent Scotland?" with a resounding Yes! I can almost hear him saying "if not this time then next time" I never shared his nationalism, I don't share it now. I am sad beyond words that he cannot crown his act of imagination with a triumphal vote but my imagination is not his.

But he did teach me one thing of inestimable value about this debate. He became a Nationalist in the 1960's before oil was discovered in the North Sea. His conviction did not rest upon an argument from material well being. He believed that whether or not Scots were financially better off as a result of independence was not the most important consideration. The current debate among politicians has mostly been about money. The 'No' campaign offers no vision for a better tomorrow, it simply warns against a worse one where voters may be several hundred pounds a year out of pocket. The 'Yes' campaign counter by saying 'no they won't be.' If, however, Scotland does vote for independence it will likely not be about either of these propositions. Scots will be saying that, yes, they know there is a financial risk but, so long as the weak and vulnerable are protected that is not the real point of the thing. They will be voting for a future where the shared values that they imagine that they have will take an assured place as of right in the governance of their country. And they will be rejecting the values which they do not wish to have imposed upon them by distant elites.

Whether they know it or not many Scots who vote 'Yes' will be striking a blow against materialism. Because of the crass nature of the 'No' campaign few Scots will vote for it for other than material reasons. Christian Scots can make hard headed calculations as well as the next voter and there is nothing wrong with voting for the well being of your family and yourself provided it is not at another's expense. But when you vote for money and money alone it is a sign that your horizons are too low. I do not, as I said, share my father's Nationalism but I do share his thrawnness. It is one of the things that we tell ourselves about ourselves that we are a thrawn people. And it is a piece of imagination that to some extent has become a reality. If the 'No' camp thinks so little of Scots that it offers money in place of enduring values then many Scots will say the hell with  them I'm voting 'Yes' whatever the risks may be. Scotland is better than its politicians and it places more emphasis upon things that endure longer than a politician's promises. Independence for Scotland? I say Yes.

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1 comment:

  1. You've offered a perspective that didn't come through in the rest of the news coverage here in the USA about the independence vote. We know the result now - but what you wrote should inform every pundit's reflections on why the vote went the way it did.